Prescott on bulimia

Why the former deputy prime minister didn't reveal his condition in office

For most of the two hours we spent in John Prescott's office in Westminster, he talked energetically about politics: Blair, Brown, Bush, Iraq, climate change, the Murdochs. He was on fierce, bombastic form. But, towards the end, we briefly discussed a more personal side of his life. Last year, when Prescott admitted in his autobiography that he had suffered from bulimia, the press and public seemed astonished. Bulimia is usually associated with bony models or neurotic teenagers -- not 70-year-old Labour politicians.

"Most people have got me down as a bloated pig," he said when we spoke, conscious of how his image seemed at odds with the perception of bulimia as the disease of the thin. But his appearance masked a serious disorder that ultimately needed medical treatment. He reflects now that his revelation was treated relatively respectfully by the press -- they wrote about it as "a serious subject", which, given his usual treatment by journalists, was a change. But he noted that the reaction would have been very different if he'd spoken about his condition while still deputy PM:

It was happening in government. If I'd said it in government, the press would immediately have gone round saying, "Can he be in that job then? He's over-stressed, he can't do it."

It's an unwitting reference to the rumour mill that surrounded Gordon Brown earlier in the year as right-wing bloggers fuelled speculation that the Prime Minister was taking antidepressants -- a story that took off when Andrew Marr asked him the question on his TV show. The media, as Prescott infers, are quick to pronounce on someone being unfit for office.

As it was, he managed to keep his condition a secret, escaping interrogation and calls for his head (on this score, at least). But his awareness of his body and how he is perceived is still with him: he describes himself as we speak as "tubby and fatty", talks about how TV cameras can change the way you look, and sympathises with other sufferers. Many people who suffer from eating disorders struggle to admit it to themselves, let alone to a nation. Prescott's openness is surprising, but also genuinely impressive.

 

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Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

Nicola Sturgeon. Photo: Getty
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For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Scottish Nationalist ranks

The First Minister is facing pressure to talk less about independence - and bring on new talent in her party.

She so recently seemed all-powerful, licensed to reign for as long as she chose, with the authority to pursue the return of our national sovereignty. We would then have the ability to strike our own deals on our own terms, a smaller, smarter, leaner nation freed from the stifling constraints of partnership with a much larger neighbour. There was, she repeatedly told us, nothing to be afraid of.

Now, suddenly, she is the victim of her own miscalculation: having misread the public mood, having raced too far ahead of moderate opinion, she finds herself at bay. The voters have delivered a public humiliation, while an opposition party until recently lampooned as unelectable is on the march. There is, suddenly, talk of her departure sooner rather than later.

Yes, this is a tough time to be Nicola Sturgeon…

Let’s not overstate it. The position of Scotland’s First Minister is considerably more secure than that of the UK’s Prime Minister. Theresa May wants out as soon as is feasible; Sturgeon, one suspects, will have to be dragged from Bute House. Sturgeon retains enough respect among the public and support among her colleagues to plough on for now. Nevertheless, things are not what they were before the general election and are unlikely ever to return to that happy state.

It’s all because of Scexit, of course. Sturgeon’s unseemly sprint for the indy finishing line left enough Scottish voters feeling… what? Mistreated, taken for granted, rushed, patronised, bullied… so much so that they effectively used June 8 to deliver a second No vote. With the idea of another referendum hanging around like a bad headache, the electorate decided to stage an intervention. In just two years, Sturgeon lost 40 per cent of her Westminster seats and displaced half a million votes. One could almost argue that, by comparison, Theresa May did relatively well.

For the first time in decades, there is genuine dissent in Nationalist ranks. Tommy Sheppard, a former Labour Party official who is now an influential left-wing SNP MP, published an article immediately after the general election calling on the First Minister to ‘park’ a second referendum until the Brexit negotiations are complete. There are others who believe the party should rediscover its talent for the long game: accept the public mood is unlikely to change much before the 2021 devolved elections, at which point, even if the Nats remain the single largest party, Holyrood might find itself with a unionist majority; concentrate on improving the public services, show what might be done with all the powers of an independent nation, and wait patiently until the numbers change.

There are others – not many, but some – who would go further. They believe that Sturgeon should take responsibility for the election result, and should be looking to hand over to a new generation before 2021. The old guard has had its shot and its time: a party with veterans such as Sturgeon, John Swinney and Mike Russell in the key jobs looks too much like it did 20 years ago. Even the new Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, has been on the scene for donkey’s. There are more who believe that the iron grip the First Minister and her husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, have on the party is unhealthy – that Murrell should carry the can for the loss of 21 MPs, and that he certainly would have done so if he weren’t married to the boss.

The most likely outcome, given what we know about the First Minister’s nature, is that she will choose something like the Sheppard route: talk less about independence for the next 18 months, see what the Brexit deal looks like, keep an eye on the polls and if they seem favourable go for a referendum in autumn 2019. The question is, can a wearied and increasingly cynical public be won round by then? Will people be willing to pile risk upon risk?

As the hot takes about Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise election performance continue to flood in, there has been a lot of attention given to the role played by young Britons. The issues of intergenerational unfairness, prolonged austerity and hard Brexit, coupled with Corbyn’s optimistic campaigning style, saw a sharp rise in turnout among that demographic. Here, Scotland has been ahead of the curve. In the 2014 referendum, the Yes campaign and its can-do spirit of positivity inspired huge enthusiasm among younger Scots. Indeed, only a large and slightly panicked defensive response from over-65s saved the union.

That brush with calamity seems to have been close enough for many people: many of the seats taken from the Nats by the Scottish Tories at the general election were rural, well-to-do and relatively elderly. The modern electorate is a fickle thing, but it remains rational. The Corbynites, amid their plans for total world domination and their ongoing festival of revenge, might bear that in mind.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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